Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Judging a book by the cover

Now, I’m not proclaiming to be the god of book covers, but what does irritate and frustrate me (as both a reader and designer), is just how many dreadful science fiction book covers make it out there on to the shelves, real and virtual. 

Fortunately, there are a lot of very good covers; modern designs, unusual approaches and beautiful illustrations. But then you get those who give the rest a bad name – where a wonderful painting or piece of artwork has been ruined by bad typography. With almost twenty years’ experience as a professional graphic designer, its time to cast a brief eyeball over this common offender.

You know the type… a tacky 3D effect, or badly coloured gradient shading that instantly transports you back to the 90s. Naff free fonts that are often illegible. Or worst of all, a combination of all of the above! 

Then there’s the corroded typeface. Ah yes, that old chestnut. They’re a bit silly, but I admit, they do have their place. Just. There are plenty of these out there – some quite good ones – but if you’re going allow a designer to put a font like this on your front cover, then at least make sure they take a clean and existing typeface, and manually corrode or fragment it themselves in Photoshop. Not only does this make it unique to your cover, it also avoids repetition on the characters. Look at most battered typewriter fonts for example, and the same cracks in the same letters appear in the same place. Lazy. With a DIY approach, you’re in control of how extensive the damage to the text is, with a subtle approach often working best and preserving legibility.

But back to the 3D font. There really is no excuse – get rid of it, unless you really do want your book to look immediately dated and not particularly serious. But, hang on, I hear you say – doesn’t it have its place? Well, it does – but moreso in computer games and cinema than book covers, in my opinion. I can understand the need to make the title stand out as an element on its own, but the problem is, it is so often badly executed.

These are examples of some of the clich├ęs commonly found on SF book covers. But I find too much font treatment is just overload, and ultimately, it distracts from the artwork. And in some cases, it renders your all-important title illegible. That word again. An instant fail.

Then there’s the dreaded 'Sci-Fi' typeface. This frequent offender is often narrow in width, sometimes with angular edges – or if not that, its something which resembles the characters from a 1980s digital watch. Basically, it cheapens the whole affair. An artist hasn’t slaved for hours over your beautiful cover art only to have it tarnished by a tacky, stereotypical typeface. 

These fonts often crop up online or on TV when everything is lumped together under the slightly cheap and somewhat nerdy, acne-ridden 'Sci-Fi' banner. It's Sci-Fi, therefore it must have a science fictiony kind of font, right? Wrong. Any serious author will of course, know that the preferred terminology for literature is science fiction or SF, with 'Sci-Fi' reserved for film and television. But that shouldn't be an excuse to cheapen the genre with a naff typeface.

While I agree that sometimes you might need to emphasise the typeface on a cover (depending on what its sitting on top of), the key to a successful execution is subtlety. Just keep any font treatment to a minimum.

The much-maligned drop shadow deserves a mention. It can be effective. But it can also render your background artwork completely flat. Again, best avoided or used with subtlety – for example, if you're batting with a light coloured text over light areas of artwork, the right amount can provide the required definition.

The choice of typeface is absolutely crucial – this is a whole sub-subject in itself. It can indicate the style or time period of the book and it also defines the genre. If I’m working on a cover illustration, I see it as part of my job to work on the text too, as it really is an extension of the cover art (whether it be illustration, montage or photograph). The choice of font helps build your brand and can often be a defining touch on a cover.

Needless to say, this sort of thing isn’t restricted just to the SF genre, but at a time when SF literature is very healthy, and the self-publishing market vibrant and buzzing, there really is no excuse for a bad front cover.

Next time, we'll talk about bad Photoshop montages. Until then...